The Sublime’s Effects in Gothic Fiction

John Martin's "The Great Day of His Wrath" provokes an eye-popping, apocalyptic view of the sublime.
John Martin’s “The Great Day of His Wrath” provokes an eye-popping, apocalyptic view of the sublime.

With ghosts, spacious castles, and fainting heroes, Gothic fiction conveys both thrill and intrigue. Gothic literature is a combination of horror fiction and Romantic thought; Romantic thought encompasses awe toward nature. Essentially, Romanticism is a reaction against the Enlightenment, a time that revolutionized scientific thought, and emphasizes emotional response and intuition over clinical knowledge. Romantic literature elicits personal pleasure from natural beauty, and Gothic fiction takes this aesthetic reaction and subverts it by creating delight and confusion from terror. This use of terror is called the sublime, which is an important tool in these narratives. Examples of Gothic literature range from dark romances to supernatural mysteries.

In Gothic novels, no matter the setting or villain, the sublime exists as a different experience than appreciating natural beauty. In fact, this concept deals with how authors capture their characters’ trauma and fear. It is important to look at the sublime in the lens of both the characters’ experiences and the real world contexts that influence them.

Beyond identifying the sublime, a crucial part of looking at this technique is seeing how the fears present in Gothic literature factor into real life concerns, such as the enforced roles and restrictions faced by women. The use of terror illuminates how the marginalized, once given a voice, cope with their harrowing predicaments, and reading about these struggles helps foster comprehension and empathy.

Defining the Sublime

What separates experiencing the sublime from experiencing beauty is the disruption of harmony. As stated above, it shows elements of Romantic reactions to human experience while utilizing fear as well. According to Edmund Burke, the imagination experiences both thrill and fear through what is “dark, uncertain, and confused.” 1 In setting the sublime apart from beauty, the sublime creates more than a positive, appreciative response to an aesthetic, such as a beautiful painting or sunlit meadow. The sublime stems from potent awe and terror that stresses someone’s limits, surpassing all other responses and overloading the recipient in both their revulsion and fascination.

In regards to the Romantic view of the environment, the sublime can occur when natural grandeur overwhelms an individual to the point of causing fright or a feeling of helpless insignificance. Overall, approaching the sublime occurs when a sight or experience is “awesome” or ” awful” in the old meaning of both words: characterized by or inspiring awe, and awe is an emotion containing fear, wonder, and reverence. The sublime questions the stark dichotomy between pleasure and pain because a fear-invoking scene can also cause wonder, an odd sort of delight. In a contemporary sense, it could be viewed as watching a train wreck: horrifying, but captivating to the viewer.

Joseph Mallord William Turner's "Fishermen at Sea" combines the gloom of a dark night with eerie, captivating moonlight.
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “Fishermen at Sea” combines the gloom of a dark night with eerie, captivating moonlight.

Because of its potency and Burke’s gendered views, he viewed the Romantic or Gothic sublime as a more masculine and powerful experience than beauty, which he perceived as feminine, and therefore more fragile and superficial. However, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer and avid women’s rights advocate, argued against this perspective and its depiction of women as inherently weak and passive. For Wollstonecraft, the sublime dealt with the self and its subjective views of society and spectacular natural scenery.

Interestingly enough, Ann Radcliffe, the English writer who pioneered the Gothic novel (as well as the “Female Gothic” novel, Gothic literature for women, by women), maintained that horror and terror exist as separate entities, and that terror, not horror, creates the sublime because, while horror is definite, terror provokes ambiguous emotions, which in turn “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” 2 Horror involves witnessing the monster, of seeing blood or a corpse, while terror burrows into an individual’s unclear psyche and entails multiple, conflicting emotions stirring at once.

Gender and Evoking the Sublime

Mary Wollstonecraft was a prominent writer and proponent for women's rights.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a prominent writer and proponent for women’s rights.

Going off of Mary Wollstonecraft’s view of the sublime as a part of her relationship to society (and how 19th century Western culture treated women’s intelligence and education), the sublime, through overwrought sensory details, can reveal what scares the character based on real struggles. For women in Victorian England (1837-1901), the sublime is triggered through a fear of confinement and suppression based on societal expectations; an example of this fear appears in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre 3.

In the beginning, Jane experiences terror when her aunt locks her inside the red-room, the former chambers of her dead uncle. As her imprisonment lingers, the experience takes its toll on Jane, and she soon believes her uncle’s ghost, a patriarchal symbol, will rise and attack her. She states, “My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated; endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort” (11).

Jane Eyre becomes enraptured in an experience that affects her on both a physical and emotional level, an experience that strains her, that challenges her and extends past the capacity of her imagination. The sublime creates hysteria, and the concept of “hysteria” derives from the archaic belief that cis women act in excess or have uncontrollable, irrational bouts of emotions when their uterus does not function properly. Considering the Victorian woman’s experience, as well as earlier ones (though published in the Victorian era, Bronte set the novel in the Georgian era) the red-room may be red for a variety of symbolic reasons: menstruation (Jane is ten at the novel’s beginning and will soon enter puberty); passion; torment; blood.

Furthermore, Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room stems from punishment for confronting her male cousin after he hits her and insults her because she is dependent on his family and because the books she reads are not her own. She suffers for rebelling, for educating herself and living in an environment where she does not possess her own independence, so the surreality of her break with reality emphasizes the terror of her experience as a girl approaching womanhood.

In Jane Eyre, this issue also manifests in the character of Bertha Mason, the wife of Jane’s love interest, who spends several years locked in an attic because of her mental instability. Because of society’s treatment of mental illness, especially in regards to Bertha’s gender and racial identity, Bertha becomes as trapped as Jane was at the start of the novel, and her ordeal culminates in a result that is both terrifying to witness but dazzling and gripping in its own terrible way: fire.

Frankenstein: Awe-Inspiring Feats and Standards of Beauty

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein  4 deals with many complex themes while invoking the sublime. She considered the novel her own monster, with herself as the creator. While many of her male contemporaries mainly worked with poetry and operated in exclusive chats, Mary Shelley wrote a complex novel at a young age.

The narrative deals with the impact of nature. In fact, Frankenstein challenges the aspect of nature itself as the titular character, Victor Frankenstein, researches both modern science and alchemy to defeat death. In terms of the environment, the Monster comes to life due to a violent storm. Before that, Victor speaks of feeling jubilation from a startling and intriguing natural event.

When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

This scene not only shows the sublime, but foreshadows Victor’s ruination. Victor’s own accomplishment is an awe-inspiring feat; it is an action that incites inspiration and terror as the Monster becomes a strikingly intelligent living being, but suffers marginalization because he is the embodiment of the sublime and not beauty. The Monster is painful to look at, and therefore mistreated and accosted.

Theodore von Holst, the frontispiece to Frankenstein, 1831: Victor flees in terror at witnessing the monster he created.
Theodore von Holst, the frontispiece to Frankenstein, 1831: Victor flees in terror at witnessing the monster he created.

Victor becomes the modern Prometheus, the Titan who brought fire to humanity at a terrible cost. By mirroring the Titan’s fate, Victor performs a grand feat, fueled by knowledge and breaking boundaries, and suffers not only for his transgression, but for neglecting his grotesque creation, his child, for a superficial reason.

Though he initially seeks for his creation to be beautiful, the actual result elicits terror. Victor states, “No mortal could support the horror of that countenance.” When the living creature moves, it then “became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceive.” The situation, as miraculous and groundbreaking as it is, becomes Victor’s own personal hell. As his life unravels, the reader becomes the recipient of a sublime experience: as horrific as the downfall is to witness, the narrative propels the reader forward to the bleak and devastating conclusion.

One could also determine that this Gothic tragedy also displays elements of dissecting the fears of Victorian cis women, though the Monster’s creation and how people treat him have also become representations of brilliant but morally-questioned modern innovations (genetically modified food; cloning animals) and contemporary marginalization (issues of race, sexuality, transgender identity, disability, etc.).

Concerning the fears of Victorian cis women, Mary Shelley’s mother, the aforementioned Mary Wollstonecraft, died from a post-birth infection, and Shelley herself suffered from miscarriages and the deaths of infant children and dreamed of one of her babies returning to life. It is entirely possible that Frankenstein contains Shelley’s thoughts on both the wonder and trauma of childbirth, since Mary’s own birth caused her mother’s infection and death.

In the preface for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes, “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.” The Monster and his creation are not only representations of the sublime, but the novel itself, for it exists as both an entity of woe and happiness concerning the author’s past, present, and future misfortunes.

As an important part of Gothic works, the sublime helps readers uncover aspects of humanity. The commingling delight and terror deal with personal emotions and experiences for both the characters and the works’ authors, as well as the audience. It is essential to not only be able to define and find the sublime in Gothic literature, but to also determine the causes of fear in hopes that the reader can empathize with the complex, overwhelming struggles presented in various works. Though this is a 19th century concept, the pivotal issues presented in Gothic works such as Jane Eyre and Frankenstein reverberate in modern culture.

Works Cited

  1. Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I, Section VII.
  2. Bruhm, Steven. Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
  3. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.
  4. Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Project Gutenberg, 2 Mar. 2005. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

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Received a B.A. in English in 2017. Author of Dove Keeper, Birds in a Cage, and Rabbit Heart. Huge witchy nerd. Horror film lover. I really like bats.

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  1. Jane was ahead of her time.

    • Emily Deibler

      Thanks for the comment! When looking at Jane Eyre from the perspective of both gender and race (the treatment of Bertha Mason), things definitely get complicated. Still, the nuanced treatment of gender merits much thought, especially in regards to the societal confinement Jane faces–both as a woman fighting for agency and as someone not conventionally beautiful when the common thought then was beauty=good (a theme explored in other works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray).

  2. Chara Gantt

    The sublime is so awe-inspiring.

  3. Interesting! Gothic authors are often really into concepts like the sublime.

  4. I love the supernatural, surreal and sublime elements in gothic literature.

    • Emily Deibler

      Thanks for the response. I agree. In fact, the ambiguity and surreal elements are likely why Gothic works are my favorite horror subgenre–alongside Weird fiction.

  5. JekoJeko

    My favourite reading of Frankenstein is that, through Victor’s mentions of ‘penetrating’ nature, the novel implies that the monster is the victim and vengeful result of Nature being raped by science. Such a fun read.

    • Emily Deibler

      Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels, if not my favorite, because of the several different readings that can be taken from it. Mary Shelley infused so much complexity and nuance into a single work.

      Because of the thematic significance of the perils of taking science too far and childbirth/Biblical creation, I think there’s something to the reading you’ve stated. It reminds me of a song by one of my favorite bands that essentially compares mankind conquering a feminized nature to rape–and the consequences of that sustained violation. It helps that the earth and its fertility normally take on a female personification, especially in pagan religions (Ishtar; Demeter) where cisgender women are associated with conception.

      I’ve seen the same language in Tagore’s The Home and the World, and likely many other works–where the defilement and “conquest” of Mother Nature becomes a rape allusion. It fits with the Gothic issue of gender and attempting to “tame” an individual or relegate women to recipients, as well as the terror and confusion that ensue from the trauma, from the struggle to assert power against debilitating odds. It reminds me of how the Myth of Persephone changed, and now the myths of her as the sole queen of the dead are much less known than the story of her being kidnapped and tricked to be Hades’ wife.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Excellent analysis.

  7. Kevin Mohammed

    Excellent work! This is a really interesting piece and I find Frankenstein to be one of my favorite classics. I have been thinking about trying a gothic fiction work or something and this article has definitely helped inspire me to do so!

    • Emily Deibler

      Thank you! As someone currently working on a Southern Gothic retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher and another Gothic story, I fully encourage writing in this genre. I’m extremely glad to hear this article could act as inspiration. Best of luck on whatever you come up with!

  8. I find it interesting that a definition that you give for sublime came from a figure of the Enlightenment. The only point of concern that I have is that you may have read too much into current conceptions of gender to make your argument.

    • Emily Deibler

      It is interesting, especially in terms of how the topics of science and nature play on one another and the relationship between the Enlightenment and Romanticism–with one being a reaction to the other.

      Also, I hear you on the retrospective (or rear-view) lens of gender appearing here–seeing past works through contemporary standards. The great thing about literature, especially Frankenstein, is how many different readings can occur for one piece, as well as seeing how certain issues presented in a text may or may not persist. I guess it’s the same way works like The Merchant of Venice change in perception when a character like Shylock is viewed in a contemporary time versus how he would have been regarded then. For some, it calls into question the timelessness of certain works, while it can also make the discussion more relevant.

      Going away from gender, Frankenstein invokes this a lot where it’s used as shorthand for issues like animal cloning and genetic modification. I also recall a book that mentioned Frankenstein to simultaneously discuss feminism and vegetarianism/the animal rights movement. In fact, Frankenstein is everywhere to the point that it’s difficult to ignore.

      Anyway, I started rambling, as I’m wont to do with Mary Shelley. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Cindrella

    Anyone who thinks Jane Eyre the character is some little submissive, repressed weakling compared to her far more “progressive” sophisticated “liberated” successors found in the most dreadful of all genres “chick lit” doesn’t know crap.

    I’m a very proud feminist from the 70s/80s generation and I thoroughly despise, loathe and detest chick lit.

    Give me Jane Eyre any day — a novel that examines a young woman with no status and with absolutely no one in the world to help and protect her, who survives a horrific school yet manages to get a decent education out of it, bravely goes out into the world totally on her own with no protection or patronage with zero connections, uses her education to make a living, takes an unloved child into her heart and transforms a man lost in his own self pity. A woman who demands to be treated as an equal in a time when such things were subversive.

    Jane Eyre the woman is a far more courageous, intelligent, thoughtful character than any of the idiots populating the incredibly mindnumbing scribblings found in “chick lit.”

  10. MsTrejo

    Gothic horror may be old but it’s so popular it’s being re-invented all the time, because it speaks to the human story and the human heart.

  11. upchurch

    I enjoyed this article. Gothic fiction tells us the truth about our divided nature.

  12. I actually thought it was a very interesting article!

  13. Great analysis on how gothic novel deals with the sublime and the supernatural.

  14. Frankenstein is a fantastically conflicted character. In many ways the Creature is an externalisation of Victor Frankenstein’s own frustration at the suffocating effect of his domestic relations. His duties to his family and friends hold him back and prevent him from acheiving his dreams. The Creature acts like a destructive avatar, and sets about murdering Victor’s family and friends. Yet Victor’s motivation in creating the Creature are his yearnings to be invincible – he wishes to create a race of creatures immune to death and nature.

    For the Creature’s part, it desires to receive the domestic affection that Victor flees from, and which Victor denies it. Realising it cannot have this itself, it determines to destroy Victor’s loved ones in revenge.

  15. MichelleAjodah

    I really enjoyed your explanation of the sublime. You wrote a lot about gender, and that highlighted for me the parallels between Gothic/Romatic and Masculinity/Femininity.

  16. What a wonderful job you’ve done defining and in the texts you gloss capturing the sublime and its importance. I have always felt that the sublime is just such an experience—whether encountered through literature or life experience elsewhere—that shakes us to our core, terrifies us, and, like the steep cliff down which we now look, understanding our selves as mere trifles of the universe, which at any moment may blow us to dust and leave us forgotten, also allows us, because of our new awareness of our smallness, to be more alive than we have ever been, if momentarily. I feel that you have captured that very well, particularly in Frankenstein.

  17. jane eyre for me exploded the myth of patriarchal strength with revelations of the hypocrisy of the dominant species – the lying, greed, deceit and weakness.

  18. Abigail

    I always thought that horror and gothic were different things in fiction. Horror being written specifically to thrill while gothic literature less immediately thrills but gives one a deep sense of fear, a sort of unsettling feeling that at the root of all things there is a darkness. So gothic would certaintly be Wuthering Heights for example, where as outright sci-fi type thriller type of novel, say IT by Stephen King would be straight horror. Dracula as another example would sort of bridge the two genres.

    • Exactly — horror and the gothic might overlap in places in treatment, but they are not identical.

      There’s also what was known in its time of tremendous popularity, with stories with that attitude and approach printed even in daily newspapers, sensational literature, or Yellowbacks, when released on pulp paper and yellow paper cover. This too would often bridge gothic and horror.

  19. Lately I’ve been getting into literature that’s gothic and romantic.

  20. Goth lit is good on maintaining dark and mysterious appeal.

  21. In case anyone has the idea that Frankenstein is great work of literature, forget it. The concept was brilliant, the marketing unerring. The execution was badly written scurrilous trash.

  22. The Gothic sublime landscape leads to a sickening sense of decline and decay.

  23. Greenlee

    “A perfect example of the grotesquely sublime is her heavenly vision while standing in the hog-pen.”
    -Lauren Gibson

  24. Duke Trott

    I think the connection to fear vs. horror is right on point. Today we throw the word “sublime” around without realizing that it’s original meaning speaks to something so much deeper and more profound then simple interest.

  25. Camille Brouard

    This brings me back to studying the Gothic as part of my BA degree, I loved The Monk! Fascinating attitudes to Catholicism in novels of that time.

  26. M. L. Flood

    This is such a wonderful, well-written article! I thoroughly enjoyed how you correlated the sublime to women’s rights, and your references to Female Gothic. All your points are every deep; it really made me reconsider Gothic lit in a new light. Your thoughts concerning Jane Eyre and Frankenstein were also intriguing, I’m going to have to read the books with new insight now. Again, wonderful work!

  27. Brandon T. Gass

    Wonderfully written article! I personally love gothic art, romanticism, and the enlightenment. Great meditation on the progression of a movement of art!

  28. The Sublime is an overpowering sense of the greatness and power of nature.

  29. Resolution of terror provides a means of escape.

  30. the difference between terror and horror – very stimulating

  31. Dang, wish I’d seen this article when I was writing my midterm/final for my Gothic literature course…

  32. It’s really interesting to me that the sublime is a key characteristic of science fiction as well – and that gothic fiction works as a foreground for science fiction in many ways, notably through Mary Shelley. I tend to think of Shelley as a primary science fiction novelist precisely because Frankenstein is so concerned with the sublime and rationality and how those two intertwine. That grasping for rationality amidst the terror of the sublime is a very gothic experience, though – something I believe has survived to today’s literature primarily through science fiction. (Although horror definitely has some aspects as well.) Very interesting article!

  33. *Sighs* I really enjoyed this. I loved reading about your examples, I love the accompanying images you chose, and, I would love for you to write more on this subject.

    What are you favorite examples of Gothic literature?

    Also, have you seen Crimson Peak?

  34. A beautiful piece, very well documented! I like all the links you make and the way you use visuals (images and informative video) to ground your arguments. Make the reading very easy!

  35. I just did a paper on this myself when I ran into this article online. Good job.

  36. For those who enjoy reading Byron, and is fascinated by the idea of Byronic Hero, try Lermontov’s “Hero of Our Times”, or Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”. These works represent the golden age of Russian Romanticism.

  37. It’s interesting to try and identify the sublime in contemporary gothic (or in contemporary fiction that utilises gothic paraphernalia), especially with respect to representations of nature. In many dystopian or eco-fiction today, it appears that nature is still terrifying. But what I find lacking is the sense of awe that the early gothic writers constructed in depictions of the natural world. I wonder if this is because of the way the media constructs the natural world as something dangerous and unpredictable and thus society sees the natural world as an “other” that we must be wary of…

  38. This is inspiring me to look deeper into Gothic literature as a genre. I have read Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and enjoyed each of them in turn. It seems that there is a strong connection between primal behaviors, madness and nature. Which is consistent with Foucault’s history of mental illness and the changing social perception of “madness” over time. As the scientific method became more accepted, the mentally ill went from being innocent (and “touched by God”) to dangerous criminals. Once nature was viewed as an adversary to be conquered by science, the mentally ill were made into sinners who were akin to “the beast”; the natural representation of Satan. And they were forthwith punished accordingly. I see dramatic parallels in these stories between the unstable force of nature and the devious behaviors of the characters who are closest to the natural world – Heathcliff as a gypsy, Kathy as she felt drawn to the heathen Heathcliff and whose wandering of the moor spelled her demise, Bertha Mason and the insanity that was portrayed as being lustful and primal, and the monster (Frankenstein) who had poor impulse control (a hallmark of mental illness). Great article!

  39. M. L. Flood

    Thank you so much for putting this into words! I work in a library, and we’re putting together a display with the theme of ‘the sublime’ in literature. This article has helped us better determine what exactly we need for the display, and how to define ‘the sublime’ in general. So I just wanted to say a quick thank you, and to note this was very well-written and thought through!

  40. birdienumnum17

    This was awesome. I loved the research and thought in this article. I loved Jane Eyre in high school and it remains one of my favourite classics. It is true that the gothic works have something special in them. Wonderful insight !

  41. Came across this while researching for a literature requirement. I was reading Fullmetal Alchemist against Frankenstein, and I found it interesting how both works show the glory of mankind’s achievements AND the possible destructive potential of these same accomplishments. You put a name to what I was thinking about: the sublime. Thank you! This has been very insightful. 🙂

  42. A bit tangential, but isn’t it kind of interesting that Brian Aldiss once conceived of SF as the natural inheritor of the gothic, saying in Brilliant Year Spree that science-fiction was ‘the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.’ Sublime spec fic!

  43. I’ve been wondering about how exactly the “sublime” works as both and neither a positive and a negative experience. This article summed it up, while talking about some of my favourite people and books. Thanks a bunch for writing this 🙂

  44. Jack Valey

    Black People Stink

  45. Good thorough explanation of the sublime in Gothic works, so glad I found this article for my final paper/project on the Gothic. Helped me a lot when deciphering my other scholarly sources.Thanks

  46. Very interesting and in-depth article, however I have a question. In this article, you mention several times an experience of the sublime which is not linked to Nature (Jane Eyre for instance). Is the sublime caused by any type of experience ?

    Thank you very much

  47. Hi ! My soul is genuinely discovering gothic literature and your article unraveled so interesting points. The first one I read was Carmilla of Sheridan Le Fanu, and despite its style inherent to its old age, the text is imbeded with this Sublime sense you talk about in your article.
    Thanks you ! 😉

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